Thursday, November 29, 2007

Start As You Mean To Go On

I have a new friend who is learning to crochet. I host a small but broad-minded knitting group that shuns no-one. I'm not sure the quilters even know they're in a knitting group. Shhh, don't tell them!

Celeste paid us her second visit today. The first one was more reconnaissance to see what we are like. This time she brought her work and meant business. She had started a first crochet project, gotten bogged down, taken time out to crochet a simple baby gift or two (successfully, too -- good for her!), and now wanted to get it going again.

Her bag in her lap, she began reaching in to pull things out. This is just practice yarn, she said. The ladies in the local yarn store had told her this was a more inexpensive way to get started, until she's mastered it. She'd been shocked, I think, at the cost of yarn for a sweater she'd thought of for her small daughter. The yarn shop ladies offered the practice yarn and project as an alternative.

Out of the bag came three skeins of yarn, in pretty cream, pale blue, and taupe. Three skeins of practice yarn. Three skeins of ethereal, fingering-weight, fuzzy-haloed, baby alpaca. Celeste's practice yarn is Misti Alpaca.

At first, I have to admit, I was taken aback at the idea of such a wonderful yarn treated as practice yarn for a beginner's project. But then I started to see what perfect sense it makes. Even in the first awkwardness of handling unfamiliar tools with unaccustomed movements, the enjoyment of the beautiful materials themselves would help you to feel good about working at learning a new skill. I wouldn't suggest yarn of such a fine gauge and fuzzy hand for every beginner, but Celeste seems a precise sort of person, well prepared for the close attention it requires at first. The point, either way, is that it be beautiful.

She showed us what she'd done so far. Three or four delicate squares of a feminine, flowerlike granny square pattern destined to be a soft, lovely scarf. She showed us the pattern in her beginning crochet book. In her choice of practice yarn, her start at a scarf looked more appealing than I could ever have imagined the scarf in that picture could be. Much. Her first project will be a knock-out, that she will wear, and love, and take pride in.

The more I think about it, the more I realize she knew exactly what she was doing. Start as you mean to go on.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Oh, What A Relief It Is!

Well, I went ahead and ripped out the toe of one of the pointy-toed Gentleman's Fancy socks and had another try. Here are both versions, modeled on my conveniently-available-but- smaller-than-intended feet. I don't know; do you think the redesign might have made a slight difference? :)

Seriously, with the original toe, I despaired of these socks ever fitting on a man's foot. But the one with the re-done toe seems like it might actually be roomy enough. Better, much better. Phew!

What amazes me is that, by my reckoning, the re-done toe on the right has only two more rows of knitting than the original on the left. Really. That's how much the extreme tapering of the toe was affecting the size of the sock.

Further field testing with a suitable test subject confirmed the initial findings. The new high-capacity design can accommodate a reasonably typical man-foot. Now that engineering design and validation are complete, production roll-out to Fancy-two can proceed post-haste.

I have re-checked the pattern for this sock in the Knitting Vintage Socks book, looking for any possible misunderstanding or error: the number of rows, the number of stitches at each stage, the length in inches. Everything checks out. It's just simply a pointy-toed sock. And even with 20-20 hindsight, the photo just gives no earthly clue that there is anything unusual about the shape of the toe. That sock must have been blocked within an inch of its life.

In any case, the finish line is in sight. Just a little more wanton raveling, some picking up of itsy bitsy stitches, and straightforward re-knitting, with an easy mind.

For the next project, after all this time spent with colors so subdued, I have a feeling I'll be in the mood for something brighter. And speaking of subdued, playing now and then around these parts is a band called the Subdudes. I can't say I know a thing about them, since I've never gone to see them play, but I do know a great name when I see one. :)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bless Your Pointy Little Toes

Why, why, why didn't I trust my gut feeling a little earlier? I had a suspicion there was something a little odd about the shaping of the Gentleman's Fancy socks. But I was so happy to knit away thoughtlessly that I really just didn't want to dig too deeply.

In knitting the first sock, I noticed that the pattern had some, ahem, peculiar features. The heel turn starts with an unusually small number of stitches. The toe tapers down to an unusual degree before calling for grafting. The grafting weaves together the left and right sides of the toe, instead of the top and the bottom. These are not errata. They are all perfectly, precisely designed and specified. It was what you might call an interesting sock to knit.

When it was done, I tried it on myself, noticed a little room in the toe. OK, that was good. Extra room in the toe was exactly what I wanted to see. I was just hoping it would be large enough for a bigger foot. Not caring to examine the matter too closely, I focused instead on how handsome the stitch pattern looked when stretched out on the wearer.

As always, I went ahead and rushed headlong into the second sock. I knit my way through it quickly, blithely, unknitting and reknitting when I encountered the inevitable minor second-sock mistakes, untroubled and happy, until the thing was complete.

I held it up, looked at it, before asking for help from world's-most-patient-husband in testing it for size. I couldn't avoid noticing any longer; it did look a little odd.

Only then, finally, did I face the facts. OK, I admit it! The toes are a little pointy. Really pointy. Awfully pointy. Pointy enough to poke someone's eye out.

Just how pointy?

This pointy. Oh, my goodness.

This view is of the bottom of the foot. (Don't ask me why; that's just how it decided to pose for its portrait.) You can sort of see the side-to-side grafting, too, which only serves to emphasize the general abundance of pointiness.

Well, it's an adaptation of a vintage pattern; maybe people's toes were pointier then. Or maybe it was a perfect match to the pointy evening pumps late-Victorian gentlemen might wear with their tightly tapered trousers. But it's more a curiosity than a comfortable match for a moderately rounded set of modern human toes.

And as you can see... the heels are pointy, too.
But I really think that will just kind of stretch away when the sock is on an actual foot, won't it? Yes, I thought so too.

So, it's taken a lot of consideration and more than a few heavy sighs, but....

Dear Fancy-one and Fancy-two,

I'm sorry; I don't know how to break this to you gently, so I'll just have to say it straight out. I'm going to rip out your pointy little toes.

I know it sounds painful. But I assure you, it's going to hurt me more than it hurts you. After all, you'll soon be as good as -- no, better than -- new. You'll be getting proper toes, like all the other socks have. But I will never get back the time I'll be spending cross-eyed, picking up 140 teeny-tiny little stitches in tiny little skinny yarn on tiny little needles. I'm only doing it out of an abundance of love.

Thank goodness, at least I haven't already woven in the ends!

Too Tightly Wound? Part 2: Spinning

I'm wondering if there's a theme here. We've already looked at the evidence that my knitting might be just a wee bit high-strung. What about the spinning?

Well, first of all, the whole body of work we're talking about here is pretty small. A couple of puffs of mystery wool that I bought along with my handspindle when only the first inklings were dawning that this was something I might like to try. A sweater's worth of Coopworth wool in its various natural undyed colors. Some dyed locks of unknown breed that I bought to try out my brand new handcarders last spring. And a sumptuous Lorna's Laces hand-dyed top that I'm half-way through right now.

Nevertheless, if forced to make a judgment on that small sample, I would have to say that almost all the yarn I have spun has come out... firm. Sturdy. Durable, I'd say. Not that it's a bad thing, but I'm still hoping I might be able to produce something a little more tender and yielding.

On the blogs, I keep reading about how wonderfully soft handspun is, how it's such a pleasure to knit with compared to commercial yarn. Mine doesn't yet have that lovely voluptuous temperament. If anything, it seems a little dour. Oh, it's definitely real yarn, nicely uniform, which is a victory in itself, and one that I'm proud of. It looks beautiful. But the hand is disappointingly no-nonsense. It will probably make a strong fabric that would show cables well and wear like iron.

I have a feeling that I'm making the beginning spinner's mistake of over-twisting everything. I read about how you have to give one type of fiber a little more twist than another to keep it from drifting apart. Let me just say, loosely spun strands drifting apart have not been a problem for me. :)

It's not that my hands can't keep up with the drafting. I believe I've learned reasonably well how to handle and control the supply and draw out the fibers. No, I think what's going on is that I'm so thrilled to have gotten the hang of it that, in sheer exuberance, I'm peddling away on the treadle far too lustily!

A skill like spinning. that you have to get the feel of, seems to be a challenge to learn from books and trial-and-error alone. At each step of the process, it means guessing about what I'm aiming for, what it should feel like. But I'm still learning, analyzing, and each skein brings me a little more knowledge.

So, the jury is still out, but I think the defendant repents and will be trying very hard to abuse helpless fibers no more.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Too Tightly Wound? Part 1: Knitting

It strikes me to wonder lately if I'm a little too tightly wound and need to loosen up.

To the best of my memory, it seems like I've generally knit at a fairly average gauge. But some recent observations have shaken me to my boots. Could it really be that I've been a tight knitter all these years and didn't know? No, that's just not possible. Consider the following exhibits:

Exhibit 1.
I had to go up a needle size, from US 0 to US 1, to get gauge on the Gentleman's Fancy socks, now underway. That's funny; I don't think this is usually the case (but maybe I haven't been checking carefully?)

Even so, I have a sneaky feeling that maybe I ought to check it again, because the first sock of the pair seems suspiciously narrow. It's a stretchy stitch pattern. But still.

I'm a little concerned about whether it's going to fit a man-sized foot. It's a bit large on my average-sized woman's foot, but I'm not sure if it's large enough, especially up near the top of the cuff, for a man's well-turned muscular calf. Maybe it's just that Nancy Bush, whose pattern it is, is an exceptionally loose knitter. Sure, that's it.

Exhibit 2.
I like my needles pointy. I've seen it said somewhere that those who dislike blunt-pointed needles are probably tight knitters. I remember trying my first pair of Addi Turbo circular needles, in a US size 7. Addi Turbos are finely honed instruments, veritable weapons in the knitter's arsenal, gleaming and dangerous. I liked their sleekness, appreciated the nickel-plated slipperiness that makes for fast, smooth knitting.

The points did seem a little blunt, but not so much as to be a problem. For another project, I went ahead and ordered a pair in US size 3, figuring the points would be scaled down along with the needle diameter. Not so. To my dismay, when they arrived, the points on the size 3s seemed no smaller than those on the size 7s. Not one whit. (OK, that might be an exaggeration. I think they were actually a little smaller. Maybe one or two whits.) That, I did not care for at all. Slipping those great big dull points under a thin little strand of sport-weight yarn was not my idea of fun. I soon abandoned the Addis and went back to an old standby set of needles. But that was surely just a fluke.

Exhibit 3
Lately, after a whole row of purling, the stitches have not been sliding so easily on the needle. But I have monkeyed around a lot over the past year with my purling technique. Having been unthrilled by the characteristically loose leftmost stitch I was getting in ribs and cables, I was looking for a way to eliminate it. Oh, I know there are a couple of tricks people use for this (for instance, here), but I was determined to solve it my way. I may have tightened up my purling a bit too much in the process. A minor adjustment out of whack, that's all.

Exhibit 4
I saw a side-by-side test. I sat next to a friend in one of the Market Session classes at Stitches East. We all knitted, as part of the lesson, the same pattern, with the same yarn. My knitted sample was just that little bit smaller than hers. With the same size and brand of needles. Hmmm.

My stitches looked small and even (for the most part). Hers were more comfortably relaxed. Well, then probably she was knitting a little too loosely for the most consistent results. Obviously. That would be it. Of course.

Exhibit 5
My great-grandmother, who gave me my first knitting lessons, was known in our family as a famously tight knitter. All her work was beautifully done, but very tight. OK, but I was barely knitting at all then! I was too young! It was years later when I really learned how to knit! I'd forgotten everything!

Coincidence? Who can say?

(I wonder if anyone has ever done a research dissertation on the effect of genetics on knitting style.)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

And Speaking of Monty Python...

OK, I know we weren't; not really. But a remembered little snippet of dialog made me look up an old favorite movie, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail. " I happened to light upon a Wikipedia entry that, among other things, gave some details about how the movie was made. And oddly enough, there was a knitting connection. It seems that to outfit the movie's knights-in-armor on a shoestring budget, the film-makers faked the chain mail by using wool, painted silver!

There is also some talk of complaints about the wool being clammy, absorbing water in the cold wet weather. But no, obviously they must be wrong, as all my knitting books tell me. Wool keeps us warm and dry because it absorbs all that moisture. At least that's what we like to think. :) Maybe there's a threshold beyond which it throws up its hands and says, "Och, a wee hank of wool cannae do anything mair!" Stereotype tells me that this dampness threshold might be regularly exceeded in the U.K., though the weather when I've visited there hasn't necessarily borne this out.

Anyway, another link led me to a YouTube clip of the scene where the knights are being repelled from invading a castle by the hurled insults of a defending Frenchman. The Frenchman is the always-loopy John Cleese. You might find it either hilarious or puerile, depending on whether you have a liking for anarchic silliness and can tolerate a modicum of childish rudeness. I laughed myself senseless. Regardless, you can get a good look at the "chain mail." (It's perfectly ordinary garter stitch, as far as I can tell, but it's still kind of interesting to see the knightly garments.) If you're up for it, it's here. Or rent the movie for an extended dose.

I also have fond memories of skits from the TV show. One that comes to mind is the Ministry of Silly Walks. Maybe we should establish a Ministry of Silly Knitting Mistakes. We could admit to the most ridiculous accidents that had happened in our knitting, safe in the knowledge that others have made mistakes just as silly. As I said, I've made a sock without turning the heel, and I've probably made two lefts of something instead of a left and a right. I've made the whole front of a sweater accidentally using an unmatched pair of two needles in different sizes.

Surely I'm not the only one!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Second Sock Syndrome? Pshaw!

Sure, I've heard about the dreaded second sock syndrome, the boredom-fueled procrastination over knitting the second sock of a pair. For many, it seems, once the thrill of discovery and accomplishment of trying an interesting new pattern has been exhausted with the first sock, the prospect of making another holds no charm. It becomes a chore to get through sooner or later (often much later). Perfectly natural.

But that's not me. I'm not so anxious to be immediately on to the next new thing. In me, there's still a trace of the two-year-old, exhilarated after a little swing through the air in my Dad's strong hands, shouting "do it again! do it again!"

I rather like knitting the second sock, working my way again through the pattern that I've already done once. I like watching the first sock's identical mate gradually appear. I don't mind the need to occasionally "read" the stitches, examining them closely to be able to duplicate first sock in every detail. I like knowing that I can master what's lurking around the next bend. Difficult patches? Dimly lit pictures? Errata? Misleading explanations? Ha! They've met their match. They hold no terrors for me. I will wave my knitting needles in their general direction!

If anything, it's the grafting that puts me off just a little. And what gets me past that minor bit of drudgery to close up the toe of the first sock is the strong desire to get those last two needles free so I can cast on for the second one! I could sneak the needles out early by threading the live stitches awaiting grafting onto a stitch holder or waste yarn to await their moment, but I choose to regard that as cheating. Eat the vegetables first, then have dessert. It doesn't take so long, after all. Then, the minute the fiddly work with the tapestry needle is done, the cuff of sock number two is immediately underway.

Mind you, I'm not saying I never mess up on the second sock. The danger for me lies in over-confidence. Eager and certain I know what I'm doing, I breeze ahead -- without remembering to look often enough at the instructions. This is when I'm liable to get ahead of myself and miss one of those oh-so-intricate adjustments that a detail-minded designer like Nancy Bush is apt to make in her patterns (must shape the ankle just so). Or I may do something utterly silly like picking up the gussets along the heel flap without first turning the heel! No matter, a little backing up, a little re-knitting, and I'm safely on my way again.

Interestingly, the sophomore-oops phenomenon extends for me to other arenas as well. In cooking, the first time through a new recipe usually works fine. It's when I've made that dish a time or two already and think I have it licked that I'm more likely to run into trouble. I'll just glance at the recipe and skip merrily ahead a step or two, only to realize I've missed the stage when I was supposed to add a key ingredient. Oops.

All of which is to say, the second of the Gentleman's Fancy socks is now coming along quite nicely. :)

Giving Thanks

I'm thankful for the turkey we had for dinner this evening.
I'm thankful for the home to cook it in and welcome my family to.
I'm thankful for my family, near and far.
I'm thankful that so many of my dear ones live close enough to come and be with us for special times.

I'm thankful for my parents, brother, and sister-in-law- to-be, who arrive swathed in my handknits to show me they care.

I'm thankful for my other sister-in-law, brother-in-law, nephews, and niece, and their little dog too, with all their good cheer and happy commotion.

I'm thankful for the chance to guide my little niece's hands as she gives in to a growing curiosity about Aunt Cathy's spinning wheel.
I'm thankful for the happy corkscrews and fluffy slubs of the beginner's yarn she makes.

I'm thankful for a little quiet time once all the excitement and tumult are over.
I'm thankful for the chance, after a long day of hard work, to put up my feet and rest my back and knit a while.
I'm thankful for the husband who wants nothing more than for me to be happy.

I'm thankful for new things to discover and enjoy.
I'm thankful for the generosity, with their time and their knowledge, of the knitters and spinners I feel I've come to know through reading their blogs.

I'm thankful for the pleasant town I live in.
I'm thankful for this wonderful country, and I'm thankful for my chances to see other parts of the world.
I'm thankful for the awe-inspiring natural world.
I'm thankful that we can always hope and try for things to be better.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Happy Feet

I couldn't resist showing off my new shoes. Cute, yes (at least I think so), but they're actually something pretty special. It turns out that they're part of a benefit that Nike has been doing for the last few years for the Oregon Health and Science University's Doernbecher Children's Hospital. Each year they pick out half a dozen kids who have been treated at the hospital for serious illnesses, and let them design their own shoes! Each one gets teamed up with a Nike designer to help translate their ideas into reality. Then all proceeds from the sale of the shoes go to the hospital.

You can see pictures of the kids and the shoes they designed on the Oregon Health and Science University site, here. My pick was designed by a young lady named Alice Heinz. Not only did Alice pick out the colors, but laser-etched into the leather are a few of Alice's favorite things, like guinea pigs and cheese. :) In the picture, if you look closely, you can just see a sunburst on the dark blue. There's a nice article about sweet little Alice and her shoe design in the Corvallis Gazette-Times, here.

We just stumbled upon them in the Niketown store in Eugene, Oregon, but I understand that just a couple of weeks ago they were released for sale nationwide and on-line. The Eugene Niketown is also kind of fun in itself; it's basically a shrine to the famous University of Oregon track stars and the coach who, not incidentally, in trying to help his runners, came up with the revolutionary waffled rubber shoe soles that led to the creation of Nike.

So, while I realize they're not knitting-related, they make me smile, because of the happy colors, because of the fun the kids must have had creating them, and because of the good they're doing for the hospital and other kids.

Besides, wouldn't they look great with a nice bright pair of handknitted socks?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Back Home to... Handcarding!

After a vacation, it's always tough to come back down to earth. Luckily, this time that wasn't really necessary.

First of all, just look at what I came back to, for Pete's sake! These pictures were taken on Sunday, when it was a little gray out. I really wish I had taken some on Saturday, when we had a blue, crystalline autumn day, so I could show just how incredible the trees looked.

Autumn is always a beautiful time of year here in the mid-Atlantic, and I think after that horrible drought we had this summer, the trees are putting on an exceptionally fine show. It truly lifts the spirits just to get outside and see it.

But to add to the pleasure, this weekend I headed to a local yarn store to take a handcarding class. Yes, I've tried carding a little on my own, in my usual "I can do it myself" spirit. But I figured it wouldn't hurt to get a little help, and besides, the class description held out the extra lure of getting a chance to try a drum carder.

I am so glad I signed up for this class. It was a small class, only five of us, and the teacher was great. After some initial coaching on using the hand-cards and looking at different types of fibers -- wool, mohair, alpaca, different types of silk -- the class focused on blending colors and fibers. The teacher basically made a giant pile of different rovings and locks on the floor in the middle of the room, and let us all have at it, putting different things together and carding them to see what kind of results we would get. All kinds of colors and fibers. I was definitely a kid in a candy store! She provided some pointers and gentle guidance here and there, about how different blending choices would affect the spun yarn, and we learned by trying things.

Here are some of my experiments. The ones on the left are just the ones to get the basic technique with some natural undyed wool. The two in the center were interesting. One was a blend of brown alpaca, black wool, and a coppery mohair. Promising ingredients, but disappointingly blah when carded together. I took part of that same blend and carded in a little bit of a brassy yellow, and it just woke up and came alive. The two on the right were other experiments combining neutrals with bright colors. They both used a shocking pink that was considerably softened by being paired with natural colors. And the one on the right also used an intensely strong blue, which settled down nicely with the pink and some soft gray. In fact, if I took one lesson away from the class, it was to look very differently at those bags of rovings in screamingly bright colors that I see in on-line shops and at fiber festivals. The art is in blending them with the neutrals and each other to get the effect you're looking for.

Finally, to double my pleasure, double my fun, I got to have a go at using the drum carder. For those who don't card or spin and may not know, a drum carder is a hand-cranked machine that rolls the wool between drums covered with little teeth to create a rectangle of carded wool called a batt. And it goes a lot faster than carding with the hand cards, which is awfully nice if you want to do something like processing a whole fleece!

The teacher showed us how to roll up the batt that comes out of the drum carder and stretch it to form a roving. Here's the roving I made. I blended a natural light gray Coopworth wool, some teal locks, and some purple grape-colored dyed wool. I really love the way it came out.

I think my Dear Santa letter may have a little something to say about a drum carder this year!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Before We Leave the Beautiful Northwest...

From Seattle, we headed down to Portland and Eugene, Oregon. World's-most-patient-husband is a major fan of track and field and needed to see the most vaunted of all track venues, the University of Oregon's Hayward Field, where the U.S. Olympic trials will once again be held next year.

We stayed busy enough to miss out on actually setting foot in any Oregon yarn shops, though we had a near-miss at one in Eugene called Soft Horizons. Thankfully, though, we did not miss out on one of the local brewpubs. It was just a bit too late in the evening when we got to the yarn shop, but it looked like a nice one. It's in an old Victorian house with a wrap-around porch, which I clambered up on to take a peek inside. It looked warm and colorful, with turn-of-the-century-style chandeliers. There were also signs of potential spinning supplies. I could see a spinning wheel in there, the cute little Louet Victoria, which, as I learned chatting around at a festival earlier this fall, is pretty portable at only six pounds!

With my suitcase bulging with yarn from the shops I'd already hit, it really wasn't all that tragic to have to just admire the shop and move on. Especially with Powell's City of Books waiting for us back in Portland. When I went for the first time to Portland on a quick business trip a few years back, Powell's is the first sightseeing stop people recommended to me. Can a bookstore really be that amazing in this day of enormous stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble everywhere? Yes, it can. Of course, you can buy from Powell's on-line, but it's just so much better to be there in person, to lose yourself browsing around in those huge rooms, with all the new and used books shelved together and never knowing what might turn up. Stack after stack of tall shelves of knitting books. Sigh. I kept it down to four and felt virtuous.

Near Portland in Washougal, Washington, was a real treat: a factory tour at Pendleton Woolen Mills. Note the rainy, depressing November weather we'd been hearing so much about. :)

If I'd gone a couple of years ago, I might not have been that excited. But since I've taken up spinning, it is absolutely fascinating to see how it's done on a commercial scale. Wool is still wool, and has to be dyed, carded, and spun. Of course, this is 250-pound bales of wool. Imagine having to dry all that after soaking it in a dye-bath! Carded batts of fiber are still batts, and roving is still roving. Of course, these batts are continuously generated and are probably miles long. And this roving is spaghetti-thin, so they can make the very fine gauges of yarn used in commercially woven and knitted goods. The strands being spun sometimes break, just like at home, and marvelous little machines rush to repair them. It's really something. If you do visit some time, the tour is free, but be sure to buy something in the mill store afterwards, to help support it.

The factory is tucked right alongside the Columbia River Gorge, an unbelievably beautiful place, with lovely sights like this. It's the upper part of Multnomah Falls, even more postcard-perfect with the changing foliage. We had lunch in the stone lodge at the base of the falls, next to a towering window, watching the play of the water and mist.

It's also salmon-spawning time, and you can see them right there as you walk across the footbridge near the bottom. They were surprisingly a gorgeous dark crimson in color. Repeated attempts to get pictures were foiled by the movement of the water surface beneath which they swam.

One thing that struck me as being very different from here on the East Coast is the moss. Here, trees may have light dusting of moss on the north side. In the Northwest, the moss is so thick, it's shaggy! And in this case, it's helped along by the ferns growing in it.

All in all, it left me wishing I could come back again next year, perhaps for the Black Sheep Gathering or the Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival. It's probably not going to happen, but it never hurts to daydream, now, does it?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Another Day, Another Shop

On our third day in Seattle, encouraged by the world's most patient husband, I took a taxi across town for a visit to Tricoter. Why there? Because, having seen books by owners Linden Ward and Beryl Hiatt (Handknit Style I and II, Simply Beautiful Sweaters) during long bookstore-browsing sessions, it was the one Seattle knitting store listed in my Shop Finder that I'd heard of. That made it as much knitting-world-sightseeing as shopping.

Alighting from my chariot-for-hire, I saw a tidy facade flanked with potted topiaries. My aforementioned patient husband hied himself to a nearby coffee shop to wait it out.

Venturing inside, I reeled a little. Busy, busy, a warren of customers buzzing at and around three tables. Both owners and a large staff were on hand. The yarns were arranged all along the walls in a boldly-hued display by color. It took some getting used to, but after browsing around and orienting myself for a while, I realized that it lent itself to choosing yarns for projects in creative combinations according to color family and texture, with a fine disregard for manufacturer or fiber content.

Flipping through the owners' books there on display helped give me a better feel for their mixing approach. In fact, I had happened to wander in on the day of the launch of their newest book, Handknitted Skirts, and in addition to what seemed to be the normal commotion, there were wine, cheese, and fruit adding a touch of celebration.

For me, to tell the truth, the whole kaleidoscope was a little bewildering. I persisted, though, thinking, when would I have another chance? They did have lovely things, and I found a toehold in the few display stands arranged more conventionally by yarn type. Still in sampling- rather than big-project-mode, I gravitated to single skeins of yarn for socks or shawls. I found Blue Moon's Geisha silk blend. I succumbed to another colorway of the siren Handmaiden Sea Silk that had tempted me the previous day. In a clearance drawer, I found a small but lovely discounted skein of Jade Sapphire Mongolian Cashmere. I'll look for something small but lovely to make of it.

The luxury yarns fit the personality of the shop -- well-heeled and fashionable. The owners and staff were hospitable and helpful. But I almost felt myself being looked up and down by some of the other customers and found wanting. I'll dress up more next time! I promise!

I gathered my finds, and, as a travel souvenir, also bought a copy of Handknit Style II, graciously autographed for me by both owners, before finally beating a retreat and catching my breath.

Later the same day, we trekked back to funky Belltown to have another go at So Much Yarn, a shop that I'd spotted but hadn't succeeded in visiting a couple of days before. Thankfully, the atmosphere there was much more relaxed. I enjoyed having a look around but had perhaps a bit of sensory fatigue from the previous shop. Sadly, I felt a little yarned out. Nevertheless, I did appreciate seeing Claudia sock yarns, Elsebeth Lavold Silky Wool, and some locally hand-dyed yarn. And the shop truly deserves credit for being the only one of the three I visited in Seattle that offered any unspun fiber. They had color-coordinated variety packs of roving for felting projects. After looking around for a while, breathing in the welcome calmness, I bought a couple of pattern books I'd been wanting, and called it a day.

I headed a few doors down to the perch that world's-most-patient-husband had found for himself, ordered a glass of wine, and mentally put my feet up. I can't remember when I've had such a surfeit of yarn in a day. It was time to sleep the sleep of the jet-lagged and righteous.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Happy Times in a Seattle Shop

I set out last week hopeful that I might luck into a yarn shop somewhere along the way, and with the Washington State and Oregon pages of the the Knitter's Shop Finder clutched firmly in my hand. I didn't want to eat up all our vacation time looking for one, but you just never know, do you?

Our first night in town, we had dinner at Steelhead Diner (excellent food, definitely recommended) right near the famous Pike Place Market. After all, we know our duty as good law-abiding tourists. Afterwards we set out walking up 1st Ave. toward an address that looked as if it might not be terribly far away. We eventually fetched up, slightly footweary but undaunted, in front of So Much Yarn, in an area called Belltown, as I later learned. Our timing was off; they were closed for the night. It looked inviting, but I could only peer through the glass, admiring the fat bundles of bulky wool in the front and wondering what was beyond. No matter; one day in town and I'd found a shop to gaze upon. I didn't ask more than that.

The next day, there was un-yarn-related sightseeing to do. Car-less, we jumped a tour van to the amazing Boeing facility where they build the big airplanes. For entry, you have to stow away all your stuff, and present yourself innocent of electronics, cameras, purses, knitting bags, and the like, but I did manage to squeeze in some good sock-knitting time on the trip up.

Later, back in town, we hopped a ferry to get out on the water and visit nearby Bainbridge Island. Chilly winds and beautiful views ensued. Arriving at nightfall, we walked up into the town of Winslow and headed for a yarn shop serendipitously spotted in a town directory brochure. I halfway expected it to be closed as well by the time we got there, but light streamed from the windows of Churchmouse Yarns and Teas and there was still one precious hour to go. (No picture; I was too excited to stop and think to take one.) The shop was wonderful, with a table to gather around right up front, and colorful, rich, finely detailed Fair Isle garments displayed in the windows and everywhere. There were lots of yarns to love: Rowan, Debbie Bliss, Blue Moon, locally hand-dyed silks, Handmaiden. I dallied for a while with a Handmaiden Sea Silk in stormy blues, but drifted off inconstantly to a Malabrigo laceweight.

Best of all, for me, there was Jamieson's, in several different weights and a good smattering of its many, many colors. I couldn't tear myself away from the Shetland Spindrift. I'd often thought of ordering it; I'm interested in true, traditional Fair Isle and have spent many hours reading and dreaming over patterns. I hadn't had the opportunity, though, to see the yarn in person at the local yarn shops I frequent. And there it was. I wasn't prepared with a pattern picked out and really don't need another complete sweater in the backlog, but I had to have at least a sample of this yarn. I started plotting about what kind of small, modest project I could do that would give me just a taste.

One of the knowledgeable and pleasant staff members suggested a tam. Wonderful! I pounced on that thought and happily set to work considering colors. Just a couple that I really love. I just want to try it, after all. Plum and a heathery purple mix. Maybe these three. A heathery violet. A teal to pick up some of the flecks in the purple. Four, then. Four are enough for a nice simple Fair Isle pattern. A wine, though, would add a beautiful deep note to the mix. OK, fine. Five. It would be silly to let some arbitrary limit hold me back from a really glowing assortment of colors, varied and harmonious.

A staff member stopped by again, a wisewoman and a diplomat. (She didn't say, your collection of analogous dark colors will be dull and inert, but she thought it. ) She looked at my selection and said, you know, sometimes it's good to include a light color that contrasts, to really bring out the darker colors. Look at this sweater here and how the pale yellow color lights up the center of the motif. She was right, of course; the pale yellow didn't glare but made the whole tapestry of tones luminous. Obviously, a bit of color counterpoint was needed. A pale green? A brighter red? Finally, I settled on a burnished dark gold. Yes, six. You really have to have six colors for any reasonable Fair Isle effect.

OK, never mind that tams generally look ridiculous on me. I wear a smallish hat size and a tam juts out too far on all sides, looking like a lid on my head. I don't care. These colors will make me a gorgeous tam.

And the "tea" part of Churchmouse Yarns and Teas? Sure, it was right there, but I was in another world. I can't really say that I even saw it.

Socklets in Seattle

I've been quiet but busy this past week. The Gentleman's Fancy Socks have made some discernible progress. At least, the first of them has.

The Fancy sock this week accompanied me on a quick vacation to the beautiful Northwest. Yes, it was socklets in Seattle.... and Portland, too. As so many knitters know, of course, socks are great projects to travel with. They don't take up too much space, the needles don't encroach too much on neighboring airplane passengers, and there are billions and billions (it seems) of tiny little stitches to make. So there's no danger of running out of knitting to do! And the thought of having no knitting project at all to travel with? Well, that just doesn't bear thinking of. I missed my spinning wheel enough as it was.

When I boarded the plane for the West coast, first-Fancy looked about like this. But as the week wore on, it grew. It grew on airplanes, ferryboats, rental cars. It grew on a van tour. It grew in front of waterfalls. In several yarn shops, it nodded politely to distant relatives, blushing young sock-yarn schoolmisses not yet out of the skein.

Today, when we returned home at journey's end, first-Fancy looked about like this. Oddly skinny, but that's the stitch pattern talking. It's basically a cleverly staggered 2x2 rib pattern aaaaaall the way down. It's very, very stretchy. And a good thing, too, or it would take rather a strange foot to fit it. Were it unyielding, then, like Cinderella's prince, I would have to range the land looking for the owner of that singular foot. But, luckily, it stretches indeed, so I'm quite hopeful that it will actually fit its intended recipient.

I must say, this is the kind of project that makes me heave a deep sigh of relief for being a Continental-style knitter. At first I wasn't, and in those early days I remember clearly that I did not relish the ribbing. I remember how woefully having to take that extra step of bringing the yarn forward or backward every stitch or two dragged down my pace. But since long ago making the switch, I don't mind the ribbing at all. It feels as if, to go in the direction of knit or purl, I'm simply leaning into a turn like a motorcyclist. Vrroom, vroom.

It's a wonder, though, that first-Fancy grew any to speak of at all, with entrancing sights such as this to watch instead. Leading up to the trip, many of the people to whom I mentioned it didn't seem to see the allure of visiting Seattle in a cold and rainy month. But just look at it -- it's magical! And, honestly, it's not as if it would have been warm and tropical here at home if we had only stayed.

It really was lovely. And not just in its own right, but also as inspiration for future projects. Seattle got me picturing a palette of soft blues and grays, with a strong dark color now and again to give it a little body. The area around Portland had me envisioning lots of mossy and lichen-y greens, with here and there a little yellow or chartreuse just to startle it a bit.

Maybe first-Fancy needs a jolt of puckery lemon? Hmmm. OK, let's not get carried away.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Fun Fur Brought Me Back

I am by no means a yarn snob. Oh, I love a wonderful fiber, a soft merino, a lustrous mohair. And the spinning has focused me on them as never before.

But I certainly don't disdain acrylics, blends, and other more ordinary yarns. Some of them are fun. Some are practical. For charity knitting, I almost wouldn't use any other. The last thing a person needs when in pain, in want, in distress, is to have to worry about special washing instructions. Or to find a gratefully received handknit item destroyed by careless laundering. I don't want to add to someone's burdens.

Occasionally, I like the novelty yarns as well, for something silly or cute. Not everything needs heirloom staying power. In fact, when I had for a decade suppressed my lifelong interest in knitting, thinking other things more important, it was Fun Fur that brought me back.

My dear, wonderful sister-in-law came to me one day saying, "look what I've learned to do!" Passing the time with the other moms on the sidelines of children's sports, she'd been shown how to knit by one of her friends. She knit garter-stitch scarves one after another on giant needles in bright, joyous colors. She made one for me that I treasure. She'd forgotten that I'd knit baby booties for her first child, that at her baby shower she'd led her friends around my home, showing them the seat cushions I'd sewn, the lace tablecloth edging I'd crocheted, the afghan I'd knit. Later, when she eventually remembered, she was aghast. I was sorry at this; it's lovely to have something knit for you. Whatever the level of accomplishment, it's a gift from the heart.

Nevertheless, she showed me some of the other things she and her friends had been knitting. They'd been haunting the local crafts store, fearlessly and experimentally combining yarns, trying anything. With projects so quick the stakes weren't so high. One scarf in particular that she had made for a friend caught my eye. As best I recall, the yarn was a bulky chenille, black with a soft sheen, and floating above it was a warm, spicy chestnut haze of eyelash yarn. The scarf draped heavily around her friend's neck, and, paired with her thick curly brown hair, lent her an air of fin de siecle glamour.

I was lost. My sister-in-law had no idea. I was a long-domesticated canine listening in the night and hearing the distant call of the wild.

Simple as it was, I had never known knitting like this. I had never seen big needles, 13s, 15s, 17s, had never dipped into novelties, had never combined unlike yarns, had never approached knitting with such insouciance. I couldn't hold back any longer. I had to try it.

I bought large needles. I bought chenille in a deep dark color blend with tiny flecks of raspberry, and Fun Fur in black. I knitted a ribbed scarf for myself, knotted a fringe. It was flattering and dramatic. I knitted another for my Mom in a periwinkle blue blend with the Fun Fur floating above in a near color match. It was elegant.

A bit more play in this vein, and I started hungering again for traditional yarns and serious knitting. Finally, I surrendered. I embarked on an intricate Aran project, the most complicated cabling I'd yet attempted. I was back.

Splish Splash

The Yarn's Taking A Bath

The handspun Coopworth has been lolling around in a soaking tub today to finish the yarn. In the process, I've learned two things.
1. Yarn under hot water is not very photogenic.
2. Especially when it steams up the camera lens.
No harm done, luckily.

But the warm wet wool does smell nice. It's just a mild animal smell that reminds me whence it came.

To dry my precious yarn, I use the bright red towels my Mom provisioned me with long ago when I set out for school on my own. Later, on a shoestring in my own new household, I arranged them artfully as a skirt for my Christmas tree. They're utility towels now, the merry red a little faded, but still bringing back good memories.

Amazing the way the wool sheds the water when I pull it in its tied skeins out of the bath, and roll it and press it in a towel. It emerges from the towel barely damp and already springy.

In fact, wool seems altogether amazing to me. How is it that the bulky protective coat of a grass-cropping creature, matted as it is when it comes off his back, can be washed and brushed and twisted into long filaments to make fluffy water-resisting sweaters and gossamer shawls? How is it that the same fibers can lock together, matting again when we want them to, to make dense, sturdy felt? How did people figure all this out?

It's just miraculous.

Miraculous, too, to me at least, being new to all this, is how the wool that I've spun with my own hands and spinning wheel has become real, honest-to- goodness yarn to knit with.

Really, everything seems a little brighter today. Just look at the ball of Schaefer Anne sock yarn glistening in the morning sunlight. No wonder I couldn't wait until breakfast before casting on.

Monday, November 5, 2007

No Decisions, Please

I'm feeling unsure and feckless.

I cruised down the straightaways this weekend on both the spinning and the knitting fronts, making faster progress than I expected, and now I've run into temporary roadblocks. It's a bit like the feeling I get when I've finished knitting all the pieces and have to look ahead to the darning in of ends and sewing up.

I've finished spinning and plying all of the Coopworth wool that will become my first handspun sweater. That's a big achievement, for a novice like me, and I'm very excited to see the pile of yarn skeins where before there was a pile of rovings. And, really, getting that last half-pound done in a little over a week shows that I'm getting better at this. That was breakneck speed.

But now I've hit the brakes. There's a small chore ahead, of course, the task of washing the handspun to finish it. But that has the reward at the end of seeing what the yarn will really be like. The bigger reason I feel a little stymied, I think, is that I miss the ability to sit down at the spinning wheel whenever the fancy takes me, and just do a little more spinning at any moment without any thought or planning.

The handspun yarn now joins the stash, at least for the time being, until I make some decisions about the sweater it will become, and until the Pine Bark sweater is done. And the spinning wheel rests until I decide which wool comes next in the queue, and what sort of project to make with it.

At the same time, I've knit the front of Pine Bark all the way up to the notched armholes. And what that means is, uh-oh, I have to decide on the shape and construction of the neckline before I go any further. I have a general idea, but all the specific measurements and details have to be worked out. And I'll probably have to do some more swatching to test out my theories. That just takes too much mental energy at the moment. Of course, I could put the front aside and start on the sleeves for a while.... No, probably best to just take a little break and then think my way through it.

I don't really like to get too many projects going at once, since I do like to finish things. But right now I seem to need some kind of project as a pacifier, that I can tool along on even while I work the other things out in my head. Maybe it's a nice time to start a small, portable project, since Pine Bark has gotten big enough that I don't necessarily want to cart it around everywhere. Maybe for this one, instead of worrying about the myriad little decisions it takes to make up my own, I'll surrender myself to the calm and soothing feeling of following an existing pattern just as written.

The more I think about it, the more that sounds like exactly what I need right now. It will be a refueling stop. I have a skein of Schaefer Anne sock yarn that I picked up from Carodan Farm at the Fall Fiber Festival, in a nice array of subtle olive and khaki tones. (Of course it's much prettier than the picture conveys; I'll have to try to get a picture in daylight.) Winding 560 yards into a ball by hand was a nice mindless task to get me started.

And I found the Gentleman's Fancy Socks pattern in Nancy Bush's Knitting Vintage Socks book that calls for Schaefer Anne, so I don't even have to think about a yarn substitution.

Aaaahhhh. That's better.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Rest of the Vest

Finished Object circa 1995. I loved it then; I love it still.

This is the Manos del Uruguay vest that Cinderella wore to the ball, after gathering her courage, to join wholeheartedly in with the knitting community like never before. I showed a little snip of it in another post, but this is what the whole thing looks like. Sadly, I can't quite do the colors justice here, but in person they're deep and rich and nuanced and not at all strident.

I knitted the vest in 1995, and it's called Ikat. I know this because I dug deep into my stash and found the pattern booklet and even the receipt. The pattern is in Manos Del Uruguay Pattern Booklet 8, and it was designed by Anne Simpson of Simpson Southwick, the distributor, at the time, of Manos.

Sometimes it's useful being a person who keeps everything.

Actually, in my archaeological unlayering of years of stash, I found not only the pattern book, but... what on earth? You've got to be kidding. It's the original bag from the late, lamented local yarn store, Wooly Knits, a wonderful shop in an old bungalow with room after room to explore. It eventually fell to a developer's wrecking ball when the location became too valuable to leave alone. (But I happened to stumble upon a link for this knitting trip to Ireland, led by the former owner, Donna Barnako, which does look like fun.)

Inside the bag? All the leftover yarn and even scraps, still wound on their bobbins. But really, what could I do? The Manos wool is far too delicious to discard. It's simply waiting for the right colorwork project, right? I have no explanation at all for those bobbins.


I contracted a violent crush on the Ikat vest the moment I saw it. Immediately, I bought the yarn and pattern to make it. It being infatuation and all, I didn't enter into this relationship in a sensible, deliberate way. Head over heels, I dived in swatchless and just started knitting. I know now that this was a sin.

Worse, I compared no measurements of pattern dimensions and myself. My impatience brooked no delays. I simply picked the larger of the two sizes on offer -- after all, I thought, it never hurts if a sweater is a little oversized -- revved up the motor, and took off.

I fiercely enjoyed the knitting of it, the side-to-side construction, the colors, the large intarsia motifs, and the small stranded ones. I loved the waistcoat shaping along the bottom. I loved the black edging that set off the whole composition. I picked out Norwegian silver buttons that suited it strangely, in an unexpected multicultural brew. I finished it, wove in the ends, and put it on, heart all a-flutter.

It was too big. It was way too big. It hung from my shoulders as if borrowed from a larger friend. But what did I care? I loved it. I wore it with pride. And as the years have passed, my rashness has become wisdom. Truth be told, I'm not quite as small and wispy as I was 12 years ago. I've worn it with many things: blouses, T-shirts, turtlenecks. Not long ago, I realized I can also wear it over a thick sweater, not just a thin little jersey. It looks quite at home that way. And it's still got plenty of room. It's accommodating and generous in whatever I ask of it. It just goes to show you. Sometimes a crush does last.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

At Least Take a Taste of Everything on Your Plate

... As my Mom used to say when I was a persnickety kid facing something at the dinner table that I didn't much like the looks of. Otherwise, a taste was sure to be waiting for me back on the table at breakfast time! I'm certain I have Mom's early training to thank for being a fairly adventurous eater today. Though I can't say I really saw the wisdom in it at the time.

As a new spinner, though, I'm not nearly so dubious about trying new things. I've been buying lots of different types of wool to taste. (And smell -- they smell lovely!) In fact, I'm at a stage that I suspect many beginning spinners go through as they start to get their sea legs. I'm trying to sample as many new things as possible. I started thinking about what kinds I've collected so far, and here's what I came up with:

Blue-Faced Leicester
Jacob (in fleece form -- I'm going to have a shot at the whole process from scouring forward!)

Plus there are a couple that I must have bought at weak moments when I didn't have the wits about me to ask about the breed. I was probably just entranced by the colors playing across a hand-painted roving! But lest you think I can't look beyond a pretty face, I also have a few in undyed white. I'm working up my courage to have a go at hand-dyeing them. I assure you, all they too need is a little color, maybe a bit of lipstick and blusher, to accentuate their inner beauty.

Anyway. That's probably about enough varieties of wool to help me learn to handle different types and start to understand their characteristics. Some of them have a reputation for being easy to spin, and others a little more challenging. All in all, I have a feeling it's going to be enough to keep me busy for a while, considering that my entire handspun output to date is only a little over two pounds of wool. But what a well-loved two pounds of wool it is.

Now, just have one bite of that tapioca pudding. (Thanks, Mom!)